“May I ask which class has just been held in this room?” enquired the British-accented student, very politely.
This morning’s class—our third meeting this quarter—had run a little long and my students were still milling around as the next class filed in. After the three hour seminar, most of which I spent fielding questions like, “can you just go over Kant?” and, “is a ‘suspicious’ reading always Freudian?” and “do you think questions of identity have eclipsed other ways of studying literature?” while hopped up on a potent combination of cold medicine, chocolate and espresso, I was giddy and loquacious. My cheeks burned and my heart beat fast.
The British-accented student’s question was prompted, I noted, from his observation of what I’d written on the blackboard.
In the split-second before I launched into my answer I sized him up, incorrectly, as it turned out, as a beginning graduate student, or, possibly, an advanced undergrad in English. More specifically, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, I not only thought “English major,” I also thought, with possibly the slightest of inner smirks: “Theory boy.”
“Oh,” I answered breezily, “it’s just a seminar—a writing workshop, really— for seniors who are going to be writing their theses—well, they’re not seniors yet, they’re juniors, but this is the seminar they take in preparation for writing the thesis next year. When they’re seniors. Anyway, today, we were just doing this massive overview of Theory,” I said, gesturing to the board and feeling, I’ll be honest, a little defensive, suddenly self-conscious about my jottings because: Theory boy.
Perhaps for this reason, his next question completely threw me.
“Theory based on what?” he asked.
There was a pause. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, we not only found ourselves at a conversational impasse but I also found myself replaying the conversation in my head in an effort to figure out how we had gotten here. It was as if he had asked, “May I ask what you’ve just eaten for lunch?” And I had said, “just a massive bowl of pasta,” and he had said, “pasta based on what?”
It was just not the follow-up question I was anticipating.
What move is this?! I found myself wondering. What is this “based on?!” Since when did Theory need to be “based on” something?! Ummm, words? Theory boy, you are an evil genius! I am scrambling, scrambling, to answer this!
“Theory based on what,” I repeated. “I’m not sure I understand your question,” I said slowly, “what do you mean exactly?”
Now he looked confused. “What do I mean? I mean …” he paused, clearly wondering how he could possibly make his question any more straight-forward, “theory of what?”
“Well, everything.” I said. “All of it,” I added, helpfully.
Seeing his bewildered expression, I elected to keep talking.
“Well, I mean, literary theory,” I added, it dawning on me for the first time in this exchange that this student might actually be from a discipline other than English. “I mean literary theory, but it’s not really about literature, that’s part of what we were talking about … but anyway, we were talking about all of it, so, you know,” [against all the available evidence, this “you know” indicated my refusal to relinquish my belief that he possessed some kind of expertise on the topic that I needed to acknowledge. Why did I think this? Is it because he was a British man with a slightly posh accent? Unfortunately, yes, that is probably why.] I gestured towards the board behind me, “structuralism and post-structuralism and Marxism and cultural studies and speech-act theory and gender studies and narrative theory and aesthetics and … all the rest … well, I mean, OK, not actually all the rest of it obviously, because we didn’t have time, but …” I trailed off.
“Thank you,” he said.
I started walking towards the door and as I was leaving recognized another student, a grad student in poli-sci whose dissertation committee I’ve recently joined.
“Oh, hi,” I said, “what is this class?”
“Oh, it’s ancient and medieval political theory,” he said.
“Ohhhhhhh,” I said. “Huh. OK. I didn’t even know you guys had classes in this building!”
“We do!” he affirmed, giggling a little nervously.
“Well now I know!” I said, “and I’m shocked,” I added, facetiously, “deeply shocked at your transgression onto our territory. You’re not even in the humanities, for God’s sake!”
I walked out of the classroom, feeling pretty damn pleased that I had made it abundantly clear to the British-accented student that while his class, punily, namby-pambily, set its sights merely on classical and medieval political theory, my course, no, scratch that, my single class session had grander aspirations: all Theory. Of Everything. Ever. In 2 hours and fifty minutes.
English: thinking big since at least 1762 when Adam Smith, the first English Professor, as I always tell my students—and a Scot to boot!— exhibited precisely zero qualms about launching into a straight-up account of the origin of all language, ever, in the third lecture (it was his third class too! The third class is clearly the optimal time to advance grandiose theories … ) for his course at the University of Glasgow on rhetoric and belles-lettres.